Sunday, October 12, 2008
'El Gringo' Wows Mexican Audiences
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
El Gringo wears a big black cowboy hat and travels the country singing Spanish canciones about dusty cantinas and cold beers and amor.
Shawn Kiehne leans toward cargo shorts and baseball caps, and sells real estate out of an office off the interstate in Los Lunas.
El Gringo, the American norteño singer, is taking Mexican audiences across the country by storm, and that's OK with Kiehne.
What's good for El Gringo is very good for Kiehne.
Kiehne, a graduate of Los Lunas High School, was evaluating his fledgling country western singing career five years ago when he listened to the advice of a record company A&R man in Nashville: Find something to set yourself apart from all of the other talented singers looking for record deals.
Kiehne, a son of the American West, had already started to sing the regional Mexican music he learned when he was a kid helping out on his family's cattle ranch in Texas along the Mexican border.
Listening to the vaqueros who worked the cattle and fixed the fences, he had first learned Spanish cuss words, then the lyrics to the corridos that played from the pickup truck radios as they bounced across the rangeland.
His music and Spanish language lessons continued summer after summer until Kiehne was nearly fluent in Spanish and had norteño and banda running in his veins.
While he sold real estate at his parents' firm, Kiehne wrote country songs and sang at weddings and parties and talent shows, trying to realize his dream of making music for a living. He sang country because he loved it. And because, he says, "I'm a white guy."
One of a whole ton of white guys with nice voices and good looks.
Kiehne had met his wife as he traveled around the state of Sinaloa as a college student, and his Mexican brother-in-law suggested that Kiehne set himself apart by singing only the Mexican music he loved, while calling attention to his status as an outsider. No one in Mexico could pronounce his name (it's KEY-knee), anyway.
"Call yourself 'El Guero' or 'El Gringo,' " he said.
"As soon as I heard El Gringo," Kiehne says, "it was like a light bulb went off in my head."
Using his own money, Kiehne recorded a CD as El Gringo, and, in May 2006, he debuted his live act at a Mother's Day fiesta in Taos.
Since then, he's never done another show in English. And his career has taken off. He performs at shows around the country almost every weekend. The New York Times has come calling, as well as People En Español.
While English is his first language, "The ideas, the rhymes, the melodies come to me in Spanish," Kiehne says. "In English, I really haven't had much luck."
Kiehne prefers to write and sing upbeat songs. You don't need to know too much Spanish to understand what he's singing about in "Yo Amo Este Bar" or "Cervezas, Fiestas y Señoritas."
But Kiehne's second CD, released last year, attempts to explain Kiehne's love of Mexican music and immersion in Mexican culture in "El Corrido del Gringo."
It's a serious song that tackles the plight of illegal immigrants from Mexico working north of their border and the United States' immigration policies.
Kiehne counts himself as a conservative, but, on immigration, he sings a different tune.
"We should really respect these immigrants," Kiehne says. "They're good hardworking people, and I understand why they're here and how hard they work."
Here's a snippet of "El Corrido del Gringo": "I respect immigrants and of this I'm sure/We need to be good neighbors and not build a wall. To my illegal friends who live in the U.S./As a gringo I want to tell you to keep dreaming and fighting./This country needs your effort and your work."
The song gets big ovations from Mexican audiences at concerts from California to Kansas to Georgia. And that is music to El Gringo's ears.
"I'm Anglo and I'm proud to be an American, but I feel like in my heart I'm Mexican," he says. "I feel like I'm two nationalities."
You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or at email@example.com. Read all of her columns at www.abqjournal.com/upfront.